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"How many are my foes!" Absalom's Revolt and the Battle of the Wood of Ephraim

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

In the early part of the tenth century B.C., a significant poem was penned by the second king of Israel, Dawid (דָּוִד or David in English). It was written during a time of revolution and upheaval for King David. Intriguingly, many of us actually possess English copies of this three-thousand-year-old poem today.

Absalom caught in the terebinth tree during the Battle of the Forest of Ephraim
Death of Absalom (Corrado Giaquinto, 1762)


Now commonly entitled "Psalm 3", this poem is included in the book of Tehillim (or, in English, Psalms) in the Tanakh or the Bible. Nevertheless, although this Psalm is known to many, the surrounding events are rarely discussed.

The historical record in First Samuel[1] tells us that David was a former shepherd who had been selected by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to rule the land. David was a courageous young man as well as a prolific and skilled poet.

Around 1000 B.C., David was crowned the new king of the United Kingdom of Israel, following the death of his predecessor, King Saul. Initially, his reign was highly successful; however, in later years, David was plagued with trouble.

Many of the Psalms that David wrote bear witness to the difficulties that he was experiencing.

Absalom's Revolution

Thirty-five years after his ascension to the throne, David learnt of a large-scale rebellion being led by his son, Prince Absalom.[2] Absalom rallied his supporters and marched on the royal palace. David's followers barely warned him in time for him to flee his palace and avoid probable death.

Having missed his opportunity to murder his elderly father, Absalom again made plans to hunt David down. Nevertheless, David again discovered Absalom's intentions and moved with his entourage and a small army to the far side of the Jordan River. It was here that Psalm 3 was written.

Absalom is caught in a tree and his mule rides out from under him
Death of Absalom, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

The Battle of the Wood of Ephraim

A great battle was fought in Gilead, near an important city (the exact city is unknown to historians). The exact sizes of David's and Absalom's armies are impossible to determine.

Although Absalom initially considered raising a small crack force of twelve thousand troops, he was advised to mobilise all the troops in Israel.[3] On the other hand, David had a force large enough to be split into three divisions and led by three generals: Joab, Abishai and Ittai. Unfortunately, this is all we know from the book of Samuel.

David's mobile army seems to have used the dense forests to their advantage against the masses of rebel troops. Ultimately, the royal forces routed Absalom's army, and the greater part of twenty-thousand men was killed.[4]

According to the book of Samuel, more soldiers died due to the rough terrain than were killed by the opposing side. The casualties included Absalom whose long hair (ironically, his pride and joy) became caught in a terebinth tree as he rode past on his mule.

The mule didn't stop, and Absalom was literally left hanging by his hair. He was killed by one of David's three generals, Joab, against the king's wishes.

Leaf from the Morgan Picture Bible, "Scenes from the Life of Absalom", c. 1250
Leaf from the Morgan Picture Bible, "Scenes from the Life of Absalom", c. 1250

In Psalm 3, David betrays both anxieties about his appalling circumstances and confidence in God. He speaks of God providing rest and protection and calls on God to save him from his enemies - namely, Absalom.

Psalm 3 seems to clearly display David's feelings throughout the entire revolution. Interestingly, though, David clearly still deeply loved his son and was absolutely crushed on hearing that he had been killed in the battle.

Psalm 3

Here is the English translation of Psalm 3 (as well as a modern rendition put to music):